In Little Saigon, old wounds are reopened as often as the sun rises.
Painful memories, seared into the minds of many older Vietnamese Americans — their years in a North Vietnamese concentration camp, the execution of a loved one, poverty and graft — surface in the chambers of city councils, where refugees often seek symbolic resolutions and commemorations of historic dates to mark their collective struggle.
But in the Garden Grove City Council chambers Tuesday night, Mayor Bao Nguyen took a stand previously unheard of among Vietnamese American politicians.
The 34-year-old mayor urged his colleagues not to sign a letter asking the city of Riverside to drop its sister city relationship with the southern Vietnamese city of Can Tho.
“The issue here is that Garden Grove should not tell another American city what to do,” said Nguyen.
Nguyen’s words ignited outrage in the chambers, with members of the audience — mostly elderly first-generation Vietnamese — shouting “recall Bao Nguyen” and “I voted for you” as they walked out on the meeting.
Only Councilman Steve Jones agreed with Nguyen. The rest — Chris Phan, Phat Bui, and Kris Beard — voted to send a letter without Nguyen’s and Jones’ names.
The backlash did not deter Nguyen.
“Because we are survivors of bad government, we are charged with a duty to ensure the highest standards of good government ourselves here at home,” Nguyen said. “So I urge you to please vote against this letter – stay out of telling Riverside what to do.”
Riverside’s newest international affiliation — Can Tho is one of its nine sister cities — has sparked outrage among Vietnamese activists across Southern California over what they see as endorsing an oppressive regime and routine violator of human rights.
Before Nguyen’s announcement, many of the protesters — just a slice of the two hundred who protested earlier this month in Riverside — gave emotional testimony about how communist rule in their homeland affected them in the past and continues to affect them today.
Can Nguyen, a resident of Can Tho before she came to the United States, told the council about her inability to claim her husband’s property, eventually seized by the government, after he died.
“They took everything from me. I saved all my money to raise my children, I went to school here — I am very poor — but they still cheated me,” she said.
Others spoke of the emotional distress they felt when they heard about Riverside’s new relationship, which city officials there describe as focused on educational, cultural and business exchange.
“It has reopened the wounds, and caused emotional distress,” resident Julie Nguyen told the council. “Do not betray us.”
Bui, who is leading the protests in Riverside, pointed to the Vietnamese government’s record of human rights violations, past and present. In a halting voice, Bui spoke of his grandfather, who, he said, was shot in 1954 and buried alive by communist soldiers.
Bui emphasized that the purpose of the letter was a simple expression of sentiments already made by many of the city’s 70,000 Vietnamese constituents.
“You have heard many emotional testimonies – and that’s why I think it’s our duty and responsibility to give them a view and express the concern…to the city of Riverside. And that’s all we do,” Bui said.
For his part, Nguyen reminded the crowd of his own background “as a son of freedom seekers born in a refugee camp.”
“Many have made the ultimate sacrifice for what we have today. We should honor them by being responsible and holding true to our own ideals. We must respect Riverside…and act in a spirit of mutual respect,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen also spoke to the anti-communist ideology that has long governed Little Saigon politics.
“Seeing that politicians have used and manipulated the sensibilities and traumas of those victimized with terror, I can’t stand by and continue to focus on what is not our priority,” said Nguyen.
He added: “Listen, the reality is, if this is our only issue as a community, as a Vietnamese community, we’re not taking care of what is right here at home.”
Following the meeting, many of those who had walked out waited to confront Nguyen in the parking lot outside the chambers.
Some shouted at the mayor, telling him he would be facing a recall and asking him if he bowed to the communist flag. One woman told Nguyen he is too young to remember the atrocities of the Communist regime.
With Police Chief Todd Elgin standing close by, the mayor spoke to the crowd in Vietnamese for several minutes, repeating his earlier points.
“Of course I don’t know about the North Vietnamese Communists. But…we have to act according to the rules of democracy. And when an American city has made a decision, who are we to tell them what to do?” the mayor said.
“Go home, go home – don’t listen to this anymore,” one woman said.
“It’s a shame, children like this. Blame his parents for not teaching him, don’t blame him,” said another man.
As the crowd dispersed, one of the few young Vietnamese who attended the meeting lingered.
David Nguyen, a 27-year-old student, did not share the vitriol of the older residents, and, in fact, said he appreciated the mayor’s attempt to change the political conversation. But the young man felt the mayor picked the wrong time to make such a stand.
“In my eyes, he’s not a communist — they’re just misunderstanding,” said David Nguyen, who was born in Vietnam. “But you can’t change peoples’ minds. I would sign the letter — for the sake of my community.”
While younger Vietnamese might be craving a different kind of civic conversation, he said, the mayor shouldn’t have “gone against the majority.”
“Ironically, I think this is going to make people lose interest in their representative,” David Nguyen said. “I feel sorry for Bao. He should have been elected in another time.”
Contact Thy Vo at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter, @thyanhvo.